Ask parents if they value ethnic, racial, and economic diversity in their children’s schools, and entrenched social and political barriers often melt away.
Strong majorities of men and women, Democrats and Republicans, and parents of different economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds say in a new survey that it’s important for children to attend highly integrated schools.
But for white parents, those principles often take a back seat to their actions, which are explored in two new studies.
When presented with options, white parents choose schools that are more white and more affluent than other choices available to them, according to, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In addition to the survey, the report draws from focus groups and individual interviews with families, most of whom are liberal and affluent, according to the report.
The second studywho moved their children from traditional public schools to charter schools. It found that the gravitational pull between white parents and predominantly white schools dominated among other concerns, such as the charter schools’ academic performance or any special programs that it offers.
Overall, white, advantaged parents appear to be measuring school quality by how many other white, advantaged parents send their children to a given school, said the Harvard report. Integrated schools are seen as educationally inferior, even as, paradoxically, parents recognize their value in the abstract, said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard graduate education school and a study co-author.
“They spoke a lot about having their kids come to understand in meaningful ways people who are different from them,” Weissbourd said. “They talked about it being important for their kids to understand that some people don’t have some of the privileges they have.”
Part of the solution, the Harvard paper contends, is for parents to look outside their own bubbles when it comes to making decisions about schools. That means visiting schools for themselves, talking to teachers, or talking to parents outside of their own friend group. Looking at data such as test scores offers an incomplete picture, said Eric Torres, an author of the Harvard report and a doctoral student in the graduate education school.
Parents are “failing to recognize they could be making better decisions about the schools that are available to them. If parents are speaking primarily to people in their own social circle, they may miss out on a wonderful local school,” Torres said.
The North Carolina working paper, in contrast to the Harvard study, did not ask parents about their beliefs in the value of integration. Instead, it described their “revealed preferences” through the actual choices that they made.
In this study, the researchers looked at about 7,400 North Carolina students of all races who left a traditional public school in the 2015-16 school year to enroll in a charter school. North Carolina has seen its charter schools double since legislators lifted a 100-school cap in 2011.
The study focused on students who had at least two charter school options within 20 miles.
Nearly two-thirds of white elementary school students, and 72 percent of white middle school students, moved to schools that had more white students than the traditional public schools they left behind. In contrast, only about a third of black switchers at both the elementary and middle schools chose charter schools that had more black students than the schools they left behind.
In other words, white students were more drawn to schools where white students made up most of the student body than black students were drawn to schools where black students were in the majority.
There was no clear relation in the data between the academic performance of the charter school and enrollment decisions. Black families valued subsidized meal programs at their charter school more than white parents; charter schools in North Carolina are not required to offer lunch.
Helen F. Ladd, a professor emerita of public policy at Duke University and the study’s lead author, said in the conclusion that it could be easy to ascribe these differences to racial prejudice, but the study wasn’t set up to answer that question. What it did show, though, is that charter schools contribute to racial isolation among schools in North Carolina.
“There’s a public interest involved,” Ladd said. “I have no problem with parents trying to make the best decisions, as they see them, for their individual children. But there’s a collective interest in trying to promote racial integration. If the government sets up a policy mechanism that they know is going to lead to racial isolation, that’s inappropriate.”
There are parents who are working at the grassroots level to push against these trends. Integrated Schools, an organization established in 2015 with chapters around the country, provides support to white parents who are seeking to enroll their children in predominantly minority schools in a thoughtful way.
Andrew Lefkowits, an Integrated Schools leader in Denver, chose to enroll his two elementary school-age children in high-minority schools, similar to the ones he attended when he was a child.
“My experience at my elementary school was so formative for me and something I was so grateful for,” Lefkowits said. Integrated Schools encourages parents to take a “two-tour pledge” to visit their neighborhood schools, rather than rely on secondhand information.
He believes parents have power to affect the larger systems of school district bureaucracy.
“We have not put enough stock, as a country, in the power of the parental push on those systems,” Lefkowits said. “Without society pushing on lawmakers, on judges, I don’t think we get the decisions that have been helpful to push toward desegregation in the first place. There’s a role to play for us, if we have skin in the game.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Do White Parents Really Want Integrated Schools?